For all the talk of critics showing up to this movie or that one with “knives sharpened,” I think there are a handful of filmmakers for whom critics show up wearing crisp white gloves, eager to stroke every frame of their latest work without a true acknowledgement of a few very noticeable flaws. Some of my very respected peers have been chirping about Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk for weeks now, as if it were a foregone conclusion that his take on this legendary World War II rescue mission was going to be one of the best films of the year, sight unseen. This prologue is not leading up to a condemnation of the movie at all—Dunkirk is quite extraordinary is some respects. It’s more of a gentle reminder that as excited as you might be to see any film (or as much as you might be dreading one), it’s always best to enter each new moviegoing experience with a clear head and an open mind.
As a director of scale, few can touch Nolan’s ability to capture moments on a grand canvas, and there are few canvases larger than 400,000 soldiers stranded on the beaches of France waiting for ships to take them across the English Channel, while German planes and submarines take turns picking off men, boats and planes just trying to get home. Nolan has always been a filmmaker who works best when the story doesn’t necessarily require a large emotional component, which is why films like Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige, and especially Inception are his strongest works. This isn’t to say that these movies don’t feature fine actors emoting up a storm, but sentimentality isn’t a key ingredient in the storytelling.
The Dark Knight trilogy is a different animal, to a degree, because Nolan was working with characters and situations that were long established in another medium. Taking absolutely nothing away from those films or how he elevated comic book-based franchises to a new level, in many ways, they too work best because emotions don’t factor strongly into the plots, even when Bruce Wayne/Batman has a romantic interest. I consider Nolan’s last film, Interstellar, one of his weakest for the pure and simple fact that it’s all about feelings, and the resulting work feels like the emotions were designed and executed by a robot rather than lived and experienced by human beings. Even great performances by the leads left me feeling empty, and believe me, I tried to get there—I saw this film three times in theaters (including once in 70mm), hoping to make a connection.
Dunkirk is a genuine attempt to capture the humanity and individuality of those in battle. In many ways, it’s as vast and chaotic as real war. Nolan (who also wrote the screenplay) makes it abundantly clear that some of those fighting simply weren’t equipped to handle the seemingly unending barrage of weaponry hurled in their direction, but that doesn’t make them any less heroic. As someone in the film points out, sometimes surviving circumstances like those at Dunkirk is enough.
Because he apparently can’t help himself, Nolan again has structured Dunkirk in a way that twists time, in an attempt to show that the passage of time is different in different parts of a war (not unlike the conceit of Inception, but this is meant to feel real, and it usually does). So while Spitfire pilots (including two played by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) might only be in the air for a few hours warding off attacks on ships below, limited in their mission by fuel, young privates waiting on the beach for rescue have their hours stretched into days. All the while, hundreds of private boats are enacted to head across the 26-mile channel to France to save these same men a few dozen at a time, because larger vessels make bigger targets for the Germans.
As much as this is a race against time, Nolan isn’t concerned with ramping up the tension in a way you might be used to in a movie set during wartime. His goal would seem to be to capture several unique stories of survival and sacrifice. One of the lead characters is Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a low-ranking soldier who has an uncanny ability to stay alive while bullets and bombs come from every direction.
In many way, Tommy is us—a blend of clever and scared to death, but with his head on straight enough to know where the safest place to be is at any given moment. His story intersects with those of higher-ranking officers, including noble ones played by Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy. But every time he seems to have found a way off of that hellacious beach, fate has other ideas, sometimes placing him with far less kind fellow soldiers, including one played by Harry Styles, as a right bastard named Alex and who I didn’t even recognize until long after he’d been introduced.
The aerial sequences are the most like a traditional war film. (Hardy is once again masked, once again difficult to understand.) Seeing the Spitfires flying over both open sea and along the beaches in 70mm seems like essential viewing. The gun battles against German pilots are wonderfully staged but far more measured and patient than you might suspect. First they look for the smoke trails to indicate a hit, then they make sure the plane has been permanently disabled as they crash into the sea. You get a clear sense why, when wars in this period in history were over, someone inevitably would ask “Who won the air war?” They are fought at a different pace and with dissimilar consequences. It’s not just about being faster; it’s about precision and anticipation, and Nolan captures all of that perfectly.
Getting back to the concept of time passing, Nolan displays this by showing us certain major moments in the evacuation from different perspectives. I don’t mean this in a Rashomon way. What happens is the same each time we see it, but sometimes the stakes seem different depending on the vantage point. From the air, we see Hardy fend off a German plane on a path to destroy a small ship. Later in the film, we see who was on that ship and what else was going on in the water that made that particular attack even more potentially deadly. This approach of jumping around in time is impressive, even if I don’t feel it works all the time. More to the point, I’m not sure it heightens the inherent drama any more than simply allowing events to unfold chronologically would have.
This is perhaps best illustrated by the sequence of the film that follows a man named Dawson (the always-interesting Mark Rylance), his son and his son’s best mate, who load up several dozen life vests on their small pleasure boat and head off with the military personnel who were meant to commandeer their vessel. Along their journey, they pick up a lone survivor (Cillian Murphy) of a torpedoed navy ship, who demands they turn the boat around rather than continued the journey to Dunkirk. Murphy is so good at being terrified in these scenes that seeing him later in the film—in moments leading up to the ship getting blown out of the water—doesn’t really add any depth to his character or understanding of his fear of heading back into battle. We get all of that just from the look on his face. Dawson might be the more interesting character of the two, because he has his own private reasons for needing to take the daylong journey.
There is a great deal, technically and otherwise, to admire and outright love about Nolan’s approach to this material. In an unexpected move, we never see the face of a single German soldier or even weapon, save for the handful of aircraft, whose pilots are obscured. Facing an enemy we cannot see is so much worse for these poor boys than anything they could see. Also, there are large stretches of Dunkirk with little or no dialogue; it isn’t necessary and you won’t miss it. In many ways, Hans Zimmer’s chilling, ticking-clock-based score (again, emphasizing the notion of time being more fluid under severe pressure) says far more than the written/spoken word might. Unlike many scores, this one isn’t attempting to guide our emotions one way or the other. Instead, it gives us a place to hang our feelings of dread, fear, hope and relief.
In many ways the structure of the film is meant to build to something like a reveal, that moment when Nolan’s intent comes into focus, which is all well and good. But I say again, I’m not sure the way Dunkirk is pieced together makes it any better. As a technical achievement (with all due credit to editor Lee Smith), I’d certainly give the framework high praise, but as an instrument in delivering high drama, I’m less than convinced. This is still very much a recommendation, and as I did with Interstellar, I’ll be damned if I don’t see this one a few more times just to appreciate what absolutely works about it. With that said, too many portions of what I saw in Dunkirk left me cold and unmoved in a film that seems almost built on heightened emotion.